Could part-time and flexible working help to keep teachers in the profession?

By Sundip Gill

Wednesday 28 August 2019

At a time when the number of secondary pupils is forecast to increase by 15 per cent over the next decade and the recruitment of new teachers into the profession not keeping up, teacher supply is a key priority for education policy in England.

With the secondary sector facing the biggest recruitment difficulties, retaining teachers is crucial. One way to boost teacher retention could be to offer more part-time and flexible working.

Extensive NFER research on the teacher workforce in England has shown that increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities for teachers is likely to encourage more teachers to stay in the profession and may help to attract new entrants, particularly inactive teachers returning to the profession.


“I’d rather have a great teacher for three days a week than a poor teacher for five days a week.”


Supporting schools to improve the availability of part-time and flexible working opportunities also forms a key strategic objective of the Department for Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, published earlier this year.

Part-time working is less common in secondary than primary schools. Our latest report ‘Part-time Teaching and Flexible Working in Secondary Schools estimates that one in six secondary school teachers would like to reduce their hours, and around one in 12 would like to reduce their hours by more than a day a week.

Why do teachers want to work part-time?

Teachers’ decisions to work part-time or flexibly are influenced by a number of factors. In addition to the influences of caring responsibilities and retirement planning, some teachers may wish to work part-time or flexibly for health reasons, to improve their work-life balance or to free up time for other part-time work, study or to pursue other interests. Ultimately, though, their personal finances determine whether part-time working is affordable.

Ms X - a secondary teacher of over 20 years, who wishes to remain anonymous - got in touch with us to share her story of her decision to go part-time to focus on her health.

“Going part-time wasn’t something that entered my mind. I was scared of the financial implications it would have. I couldn’t afford to take a big loss in pay. However, the role was having a massive impact on my wellbeing. I was working a lot outside of my contracted hours and the workload and general pressures of the job was too much.

“I do think that it is important for teachers to have the choice of working part-time and/or flexibly, especially for young mothers or those teachers who are at a certain age and are prone to certain health issues. I’ve found that since reducing my hours I have more energy and that I am much happier. Before I was constantly on the go and not able to switch off.”

A shifting culture?

Our research shows that there is an unmet demand for part-time and flexible working in secondary schools. What we found interesting was that, despite their wish to review their working hours, many teachers make no formal request to senior leaders for flexible working, believing that this would be rejected. In fact, only 14 per cent of teachers who made a such a request had it turned down. This suggests that the perception that school leaders would not support a request for part-time working is a greater deterrent than teachers’ actual experience of having a request turned down.

One of the main concerns for senior leaders faced with requests for part-time working was to time-table flexible working effectively to ensure continuity for pupils. They were also concerned about additional staffing costs.

Barriers faced by school leaders

The school leaders we interviewed raised a number of barriers and
concerns regarding part-time and flexible teaching arrangements.
These were common across the two groups of interviewees, although
leaders with higher proportions of teachers working part-time tended
to identify fewer concerns and more benefits. Leaders’ concerns
focused on four main issues:

1. ensuring continuity for pupils and timetabling different working
2. constraints on other forms of flexible working
3. communication issues
4. additional costs.

As one leader said: “The rhetoric [on flexible working] is wonderful and I’m philosophically completely into it, but the reality means I need to overfund my school by twenty per cent so I can create the flexibility for my staff to suit them and their work-life balance. But no-one will give me that money.”

On the other hand, senior leaders identified several benefits from part-time and flexible working among teachers including increased teacher recruitment and retention and an opportunity to reduce costs. As another school leader from the report states, “I’d rather have a great teacher for three days a week than a poor teacher for five days a week.” 

The main benefit from part-time and flexible working for schools is to retain good teachers

School leaders identified four main benefits from part-time and flexible

1. increased teacher retention and recruitment – in particular,
school leaders said that offering part-time working had enabled
them to retain effective teachers who might otherwise have left
the school
2. a positive impact on staff wellbeing, leading to improved
energy and creativity for the whole staff
3. retaining specialist expertise and maintaining the breadth of
the curriculum
4. an opportunity to reduce costs (by reducing the amount of
teaching hours required).

In some cases, where full-time staff were under-used, it might also provide an opportunity to reduce costs, as Chris Wilson, Business Manager at Wadebridge School in Cornwall, found.

“Not only do we have a happier and healthier workforce but that there can be financial benefits to the school, for example reducing staffing costs.”

The benefits of part-time and flexible working do seem to outweigh the risks but as our Chief Executive Carole Willis warns, “…the approaches in this new report are not a panacea for the supply challenges facing schools. It is evident that the government needs to continue working with the profession to find ways to make teachers’ workloads more manageable.”

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